Sunday, September 8, 2019

A Belated Review of Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate

I believe that Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate (2002) is the most important book of the 21st Century, so far, because it puts intellectual thought on a firm foundation--an accurate and scientifically-supported conception of human behavior.  The book thoroughly debunks the blank slate, ghost in the machine, and noble savage views of human behavior. Equally importantly, it shows that human behavior is a complicated combination of genetics and environment--both nature and nurture.

Malhar Mali has written a belated review of the Blank Slate: 15 Years Later, Why Do We Still Believe in the Blank Slate?


"Today, if one looks around, similar beliefs which abrogate our shared human nature and attribute our actions to culture, socialization, and society are plenty. The belief that only by representing men and women in equal parts in all fields can we cure sexism. The belief that it is our society which shapes what we find attractive. The belief that good parenting can control nearly all facets of how a child turns out. The belief that violence is learned. The belief that image and media representations construct our reality (and the only way to break that control is to fight back with representation)."

"It strikes me as troubling that there are still those of us who are willing to believe that it is mostly culture and society which shape the individual — and that by focusing only on fixing our systems can we alleviate human suffering. On the contrary, we need a fuller understanding of human nature in all its details. What is more concerning is that this book came out 15 years ago and yet we are still bogged down in the conversations that Pinker spent a considerable time in rebutting."

"Though long (and old), The Blank Slate is important reading for anyone who does not want to live in a fantasy world. One where the only engine powering human behavior is society while millions of years of evolution are discounted because they at times offer some truths that are often misconstrued as inconvenient. Human nature and our behavior are wondrous and fascinating subjects, and we cannot get to their core if we reject vast amounts of replicable findings about their genetic and evolutionary components." (emphasis added)

The view of human behavior one adopts is important.  As the reviewer notes, "Mao and Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, who exterminated far more than Hitler did, explicitly endorsed the Blank Slate view of humanity."

Having a correct view of human behavior is also important for law teachers and scholars.  As I have demonstrated in several books and articles on legal education, a correct view of how the brain works is essential for determining what learning techniques work best.  Similarly, any legal article that is based on the blank slate view of human behavior is wrong from the beginning.

(Scott Fruehwald)]

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